A heating system so powerful it gave its creator a sunburn from three metres away is being developed by a New Brunswick engineering professor as a method to sharply reduce the costs of making the carbon used in some solar cells.
Felipe Chibante says his "sun in a can" method of warming carbon at more than 5,000 degrees Celsius helps create the stable carbon 60 needed in more flexible forms of photovoltaic panels.
Potential products include solar house paint, shingles and even solar blinds and clothing.
Chibante and senior students at the University of New Brunswick created the system to heat baseball-sized lumps of plasma — a form of matter composed of positively charged gas particles and free-floating negatively charged electrons — at his home and later in a campus lab.
The chemist said in a telephone interview he was commissioned three years ago to look at ways to reduce the costs of producing the component Carbon 60, a very stable molecule shaped like a soccer ball, for use in solar cell systems.
He says the original goal was to reduce the $15,000 per kilogram cost of converting the rough carbon by 10 per cent.
But Chibante estimates the heating system — which resembles three welding arcs converging in a single spot — could slice the cost to less than $50 per kilogram for the highest priced component of carbon-based solar cells.
"It's a three-phase arc ... that allows us to enlarge the plasma with relatively small amounts of plasma. It gives us temperatures roughly equivalent to the surface of the sun," said the specialist in nanotechnologies.
The 52-year-old researcher says he first set up the system to operate in his garage.
He installed optical filters to watch the melting process but said the light from the plasma was so intense that he later noticed a sunburn on his neck.
An early version of the process features three white-hot arcs of flame and Chibante shouting in the background, "You know what, I think it's going to work!"
"Just from that little experiment ... I had a sunburn on my neck. When you have a sun just a few metres away you have a lot of light," he said.
The plasma is placed inside a container that can contain and cool the extremely hot material without exposing it to the air.
The conversion technology has the advantage of not using solvents and doesn't produce the carbon dioxide that other baking systems use, says Chibante.
He says the next stage is finding commercial partners who can help his team further develop the system, which was originally designed and patented by French researcher Laurent Fulcheri.
Chibante said he doesn't believe the carbon-based, thin-film solar cells will displace the silicon-based cells because they capture less energy.
But he nonetheless sees a future for the more flexible sheets of solar cells.
"You can make fibres, you can make photovoltaic threads and you get into wearable, portable forms of power that makes it more ubiquitous rather than having to carry a big, rigid structure," he said.
The researcher says the agreement earlier this month in Paris among 200 countries to begin reducing the use of fossil fuels and slow global warming may help his work.
"Solar energy will help mitigate or offset the rise in the earth's surface temperature because it reduces dependency on fossil fuels and supports the Paris agreement," he said.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press